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Law enforcement officials often tap into a DNA database to connect a criminal to a crime scene. With a similar idea in mind, scientists are now building a DNA database for dogs. The goal is to crack down on humans who breed the dogs to fight. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Amy Standen reports.
AMY STANDEN: Early one morning in July of last year, Tim Rickey arrived at the scene of a dog-fighting operation in northwest Missouri.
Mr. TIM RICKEY (Senior Director of Field Operations, ASPCA): I very vividly remember getting out of the truck, and one of the first images that I seen was a dog that had had one of its legs chewed off during a fight, and then eventually, the owners just amputated the leg.
STANDEN: Twenty-six people were arrested that day, and more than 500 dogs seized from sites across seven states. It was the largest dog-fighting raid in U.S. history. Rickey is senior director of field operations for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA. He says he's heard all the excuses.
Mr. RICKEY: Their cover is that they're just breeding the dogs. They don't fight the dogs, you know, they're just breeding dogs because they're a lover of the breed.
STANDEN: In the Missouri case, DNA samples from the dogs proved that these weren't just random pound dogs. They were all related. Prosecutors believed this was evidence the dogs had been bred to fight.
Beth Wictum says that makes sense.
Ms. BETH WICTUM (Director, Forensic Lab, School of Veterinary Medicine University of California, Davis): Essentially, by breeding these dogs, they're creating a subpopulation, almost a new breed.
STANDEN: Wictum directs the Forensic Lab at University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
Ms. WICTUM: Just as with Labradors, they may try and concentrate certain aspects of pointing or retrieving, there are behavioral traits that they're trying to concentrate within this subpopulation.
STANDEN: Working with the ASPCA, Wictum is compiling a database called the Canine Combined DNA Index System. So far, it includes about 400 samples taken from inside the cheeks of fighting dogs, including those seized in the Missouri raids. It's designed to help law enforcement go after not just the fight operators, but the breeders, as well.
Tim Rickey says that's where the money is.
Mr. RICKEY: For most of these dog fighters, you know, it all comes down to trying to create a champion and then to breed that champion. I mean, you can get anywhere from five to $20,000 for a puppy from a champion bloodline.
STANDEN: And genetic proof of that bloodline could go a long way in court, he says. It could help convince a jury that a suspected breeder is supplying dog-fighting rings across the country. Still, the dog-fighting database makes some people very nervous. For example, Ledy VanKavage.
Ms. LEDY VANKAVAGE (Attorney, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary): I'm not convinced that this is a good thing for a dog.
STANDEN: VanKavage is an attorney for the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. She's also the owner of Karma, a pit bull whose DNA is in the database. Karma was a fighting dog - she was rescued from the 2009 Missouri bust - and by VanKavage's account, she's turned out to be a wonderful pet, whatever her DNA might suggest.
Ms. VANKAVAGE: If DNA was the be-all and end-all, all of Secretariats' foals would be champions, you know, and win the Triple Crown. And they don't.
STANDEN: VanKavage worries that the genetic information could be like a scarlet letter on the dogs, precluding even the gentle ones from being adopted. Companies could refuse to sell homeowners insurance to people who adopt former fighting dogs. And that would be unfair, she says, because as with people, DNA is not destiny.
Ms. VANKAVAGE: We are not a prisoner of our genetics. Each dog, like each person, is an individual and should be judged on their own character.
STANDEN: Tim Rickey and Beth Wictum agree on that point, that the DNA records says a lot more about people who breed dogs than it says about the dogs themselves. So far, in the Missouri case, everyone charged has pleaded guilty.
For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen, in San Francisco.